Chapter 3: Early Film Career
If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.
---Henry David Thoreau
After finishing with a Bachelor's degree from the University of Canterbury, Sam went to work for the New Zealand Film Unit in Wellington. He describes the manner in which he obtained this position:
I got a job for the New Zealand Film Unit by lying, basically. I could not think of anything else to do, and there was insufficient work to be had as an actor. I had some friends, notably John Laing, working for the Film Unit and it looked like an interesting option, so I did an evening's homework on my favourite films, etc., and developed an interesting, but entirely dishonest, spiel about how I had always wanted to make films all my life. In fact, this had only occurred to me the week before. I went in and was extremely persuasive in the interview, and got the job. After two or three years I became one of the more interesting directors there, but this was really because so many people had left.
While at the New Zealand Film Unit, Sam proceeded to direct nine documentaries on such subjects as theatre and architecture and to act in small productions and short films. When asked if he was as competent a director as he is an actor, Sam answered, 'I haven't seen any of them [the documentaries] since I left the film unit. I suspect they were embarrassing, though there were one or two I thought were reasonable at the time.' Sam stayed with the Film Unit for six years, after which he was offered a starring role in a feature film, Sleeping Dogs. Sam describes his surprise at the unexpected offer:
I got a letter from Roger Donaldson, from Hong Kong, which said "I'm making a picture called Sleeping Dogs based on Karl Stead's book. I'd like you to read it. We're going to shoot this early next year, and we want you to do it." I was astonished.
This film, sort of an New Zealand/Australian 1984, was the first feature film for director Roger Donaldson as well as Sam's first feature film, although Sam had acted in two small films, Ashes and Landfall, with the New Zealand Film Unit before Sleeping Dogs. Both Ashes and Landfall were completed in 1975, and Sleeping Dogs was made in 1977.
In Ashes, Sam plays a priest who questions his faith. This film's storyline has its origin in T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday". Landfall is the story of a back-to-earth commune's disintegration. Local police discover the commune to be using illegal drugs. The boundaries between reality and fantasy become blurred after members of the commune murder a policeman and bury him in their garden.
Sleeping Dogs was a decided step up from Sam's first two films, although the film crew and cast of Sleeping Dogs lacked experience. Their inexperience was representative of Australia's film industry as a whole. Until the late 1970's Australian films were rarely ever seen outside the home country. However, in 1971, the Australian government began promoting the domestic film industry with the Australian Film Commission. This governmental support for producers in the form of tax incentives and promotional campaigns resulted in international attention paid to several local talents. During this time, Australia saw the emergence of world-class directors and actors. One of the top Australian directors was Gillian Armstrong, and Sam Neill became one of the best-known actors.
Sam describes the film industry in Australia and New Zealand at this time of rapid growth as a trial-and-error sort of business, without the modern gadgets that are taken for granted in today's Hollywood movie business:
We didn't have storyboards or any sort of tremendous organisation. We would load up the crew in trucks and drive until we saw a spot that looked as if it would make a good shot. We'd get out, film, and hop back in the trucks until we found another spot. We were completely at sea really.
Though the New Zealand and Australian film industries were in their infancies at the time, the films produced were far from inconsequential. Just as an infant must learn to crawl before he or she can walk, an actor must also begin at the primary stage:
I hadn't seen this film [Sleeping Dogs] for about fifteen years or something, and I remember looking at it and thinking that there's a lot of this film that I find deeply embarrassing, but there's three or four little scenes which I wasn't too bad at, and that's enough to want to go on and get better at it.
Sleeping Dogs was certainly no blockbuster, but the simple film did manage to catch the attention of young Australian director, Gillian Armstrong. Sam had come to Australia in order to promote Sleeping Dogs:
I landed in Melbourne. We had a press conference, which was a disaster. Only one reporter turned up, and he was from the sports pages. He wasn't interested in the film, and so we just got drunk. But while I was [in Melbourne] I was approached by Gillian Armstrong to do a screen test for My Brilliant Career.
Armstrong asked Sam to audition in Sydney for the part of Harry Beecham in her debut feature film based on Miles Franklin's classic novel, My Brilliant Career. The movies which tended to be best accepted through the new Australian Film Commission were period films, films which dealt with Australia's history, literature or heritage. A perfect example of the trend, My Brilliant Career is set in the Australian outback of 1890's.
Sam took a week from his job with the New Zealand Film Unit and won the part of Beecham. This was his introduction to the landscape of his neighbouring country:
I caught the train from Melbourne, and I travelled on through this astonishing country. It was much more beautiful than I ever expected. I was immediately riveted by it. When you are used to the New Zealand landscape, it is startlingly different and very beautiful.
Armstrong said that the screen test was 'no contest'. After winning the part, Sam remarked that he went back to New Zealand and, all in the same day, resigned his job with the Film Unit and put his house on the market. He also said that he left New Zealand 'about two weeks later and never looked back.'
It is a bit of an overstatement to say that Sam never looked back, since he still considers New Zealand his true home. However, it did take him fourteen years before he actually worked in New Zealand once again. Once in Australia, he found that he liked it a great deal and decided to stay:
I found an agent, Bill Shanahan, a marvellous and witty bloke who became a great friend and advisor. Bill died of AIDS a couple of years ago  and I miss him very much as a friend and as a most trusted ally.
In My Brilliant Career Sam plays a rich landowner attracted to a young girl, played by Australian actress Judy Davis. Davis' character is Sybylla, a young girl who dreams of becoming independent as a writer, a lofty goal indeed considering the era and locale in which the novel is set. Sam's superb acting as Sybylla's pursuer, Harry Beecham, was the springboard for his own internationally brilliant career. When the film was shown in America, female directors, managers and executives--women who are usually powerful and in control--went wild over this hot new young actor. In England, the film caught the attention of James Mason, a powerful actor in his own right.
However, Sam's success was not overnight; he spent the next two years in Australia, doing two more films which were not well-received outside their native land: The Journalist and Just Out of Reach. Neither of these films were significantly popular at the box office, but they provided Sam with employment and income, as well as further experience for the development of his acting abilities, while he waited for his career to grow internationally.
Sam recounts the incident that began the next era of his acting profession:
I was working in Melbourne doing Lucinda Brayford [an Australian mini-series based upon Martin Boyd's 1948 novel]. I got called to the phone and it was an overseas call from Switzerland, and this rather cultured voice said "this is James Mason. You don't know me, but I know your work and I think you should be working overseas. I've been talking to people about you, and I'm sending you an air ticket. I want you to come to England next week and test for a film".
For some few moments it was impossible for Sam to believe that it was actually James Mason, an actor famous for such roles as the Nazi general Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951) and Judy Garland's alcoholic husband in A Star Is Born (1954); he believed instead that it must be one of his friends playing a practical joke. Sam was eventually convinced of the authenticity of the voice, and he accepted Mason's generous offer of a ticket to London.
Sam has never downplayed the role that Mason performed in launching his career, however he believes that Mason deserves recognition for something that Sam feels is even more important: 'He gave me a belief in myself. That was his main gift to me.' Sam flew from Australia to England to try out for the role of Damien in The Final Conflict, the third film in the Omen series. In this 1981 film directed by Graham Baker and co-starring Lisa Harrow, Sam plays the now-adult son of Satan, Damien Thorn. The Final Conflict is an American film, produced by American Harvey Bernhard for Twentieth Century-Fox, but was filmed in England. Bernhard elaborates on the reason behind using England as a backdrop:
There's something about filming in England that is just right for these movies. The country has so many spooky old buildings. The English scenery has so many different moods and contrasts. There's the beauty of Cornwall where we spent a week at the beginning of the film shooting the important hunting scenes. Then from the studio we moved to Yorkshire.
Bernhard decided that he had found the perfect scenery for The Final Conflict. Then his goal was to find the perfect adult Damien:
I spent six months searching for Damien, and must have seen every young actor there is in that age group. Then James Mason, and his Australian wife Clarissa, recommended Sam Neill, whom they had seen in a theatre performance in Australia. He had already starred in the award-winning film, My Brilliant Career, which introduced him to world audiences. Mason sponsored his trip to London, and as soon as I saw him on film I knew I had found the new star I was looking for.
The success was tempered with some drawbacks, however; after the film was released in the cinemas, Sam was swamped with letters from what one would be tempted to call "the lunatic fringe". Although Sam loves portraying evil characters, the reaction to The Final Conflict caused him to shy away from such roles for years following its release.
Journalist Greg Williams once asked Sam how he did research for the part of Damien, the Antichrist. As is usual for Sam, he gave the question much consideration and was able to respond without really answering -- a talent that would do any professional politician proud.
It's hard to research, because there aren't a lot of them around. When I read the script, I thought, "What a lonely job", because you can't go around telling anyone what you do for a living. It's much easier to be a Messiah because your job is to go round telling everyone. But if you're the Antichrist you've got to keep pretty quiet about it.
When it was commented that Sam made a perfect Anti-Christ as Damien, he laughed and said, 'Yeah, like a duck to water.'
Sam worked with fellow New Zealander Lisa Harrow on the set of The Final Conflict, and fortunately their relationship off screen went somewhat better than their relationship on screen. Sam and Lisa were involved, on and off, for six years. A son, Tim, was born to them in 1983. Lisa Harrow, a talented actor in her own right, was once said to be one of the two or three best Shakespearean actors of her generation. A comment such as that, coming from John Barton, the great Shakespearean director, is high praise indeed. Harrow is known for her portrayal of Nancy Astor in the television series based on the life of Lady Astor. A family friend of Sam's commented that "Sam actually relied on her professional advice quite a bit in the days when they were together". Sam and Lisa Harrow remain on friendly terms, and Tim often stays with Sam during the holidays. Sam says that he looks at their past relationship 'with great affection. How could it be otherwise when, from it, we have such a wonderful son?'
In 1982, Sam played Brian de Bois Guilbert in the film adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. This was memorable for him in part because it gave him the chance to work with James Mason. It was memorable for other reasons as well, as Sam explains:
It was fun being on the set of Ivanhoe, apart from the chainmail costumes, which were in fact painted chain string, which attracted all kinds of insect life in late summer in England. We had an extremely distinguished cast, and I felt I was in good company, which is to say also fun company. It was nice to work with James at least once, although I don't think we had much in the way of scenes together. He also had a not particularly good part and I think probably put in the worst performance of his career. However, I am sure he was paid much more handsomely than I. In compensation, I had a rather good horse, and I spent a lot of time on him.
After accepting Mason's offer of assistance, Sam spent seven years in London, working on such films as Enigma with Martin Sheen, and The Blood of Others with Jodie Foster. In among these films was a feature which puzzles nearly every fan of Sam's: Possession. This 1984 French-German horror film co-stars Isabelle Adjani and was directed by Andrei Zulawski. Film critic Mick Martin termed the film a 'turkey', and other critics are not much kinder in their critiques. When asked about his decision to do this film, Sam replied, 'What can I say, I was broke at the time and needed the work.' He then gave a slightly more serious answer, saying that 'In my view it is one of my more interesting films. It is very odd and many people hate it, if they have seen it at all. Isabelle Adjani got best actress at Cannes for it--have you noticed many women do very well when they work with me!!!'
None of Sam's films during this period were highly successful at the box office, with perhaps the exception of The Final Conflict, yet critics have tended to agree that even on the occasion when the movie is a failure, Sam's performance within the movie is excellent. An example would be Claude Chabrol's 1984 film, The Blood of Others. Film critic Marsha Porter said that 'considering the talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera, this made-for-cable miniseries is a generally unconvincing adaptation of Simone de Beauvoir's novel.' Sam admitted that
it was a disastrous film. All of that was apparent from the day I arrived. You can tell whether you like a script. With the Chabrol thing, I didn't like the script very much, but I thought Chabrol! -- that's going to be great.
The movie was far from great, but Sam still found that it was not an entire loss. He explains:
You're sitting in London, you've got nothing to do, why not go to Paris and be paid a good wage and go to a lot of good restaurants with Claude Chabrol? And that was the best thing about the job -- he knows the best restaurants in Paris.
Although many of Sam's films from 1984 were not overly successful, the mini-series Reilly - Ace of Spies, which chronicles the career of Sidney Reilly, was a smash hit. Historically accurate, the series is based on the book by Robin Bruce Lockhart, whose father was the Sir Robin Bruce Lockhart who had worked extensively with Sidney Reilly. Reilly has often named the greatest spy in history; Ian Fleming once said, "James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He's not a Sidney Reilly, you know!" Reilly is often the work by which people first recognise Sam, an example being a small occurrence which took place in London, England:
I was once suspected drunk in charge of a vehicle, and was arrested but released when the test showed I was well under -- after four hours at Bow Street Police Station. Not fun . . . but the sergeant liked Reilly . . . .
Sam pointed out that "no favours were done or asked for."
In 1985, Sam was offered a small part in a film starring Meryl Streep. He quickly jumped at the chance and was transported into another era of his life. When one ponders what Sam has said about Meryl Streep, it becomes a temptation to say that he is verging on hero-worship where she is concerned. In a 1990 ELLE magazine interview, Sam listed Meryl Streep on his 'most recommended' list. 'Not because she says nice things about me', he explains, but because she is an excellent actress. Sam points out that he is not the only actor awed by her talent, mentioning that he 'heard Jack Nicholson quoted as saying "there's Brando, there's Streep...and there's the rest of us." Not bad.'
Sam describes his first encounter with Meryl Streep on the set of Plenty:
With someone like Meryl Streep, who's obviously consummately good at what she does, it's a great pleasure to work with. It lifts you up. Having said that, I don't think that I was particularly good in Plenty. I was a little daunted by the experience, particularly the bed scene.
Sam's uncomfortableness with the subject matter becomes painfully apparent at this point. It appears as if he has began blushing crimson red, nonetheless he perseveres in his explanation:
It's a pretty scary thing when I hardly know the woman...to rub up against Meryl Streep on the second day of meeting her. If you watch the film, you'll notice it's completely unrealistic. I didn't want to grind her or anything.
It is not only his temperament as a gentleman showing itself here; it is obvious that Sam holds Streep in very high regard. He elaborates on the perks of acting with performers of such quality as Streep:
I never fail to be astonished with the sort of people that I get to work with. It was a very short time [together] in Plenty but I liked it. It was two weeks work, no big deal. But obviously, I was fascinated by the idea of doing a couple of weeks with Meryl Streep; who wouldn't be?
One person who wouldn't be, evidently, is Sam's own son, Tim. Sam describes his son's reaction to his father's high regard for Meryl Streep:
My son was staying over and he and my stepdaughter were outboasting each other over breakfast, as kids do. My stepdaughter said, "My friend Emily, her father met Kylie Minogue and got Kylie's signature" and Tim said, "That's nothing. My cousin Paul knows Jason Donovan." This went on and on, so eventually I said, "Look kids, you tell your cousin and you tell your friend that your Dad has worked with Meryl Streep." And they looked at me, completely blank, and Tim said, "Who's Meryl Streep?"
After finishing the film Plenty, Sam went on to do the American television mini-series Kane and Abel, his first production to be shot in North America. Kane and Abel marks the beginning of a new leg of Sam's journey towards a truly world-wide career.
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